Following deadly Azerbaijani attack, Armenia and EU announce “ambitious” partnership

Nerkin Hand (Facebook)

By Lillian Avedian 

Following the deadliest attack against Armenia by Azerbaijan in months, Armenia and the European Union announced an “ambitious” partnership agenda on February 13.

Four Armenian soldiers were killed on February 13 after Azerbaijani armed forces opened fire on Armenian positions in the Nerkin Hand village of the Syunik province. Edward Hamlet Harutyunyan (1974), Gagik Varazdat Manukyan (1982), Arsen Gagik Hambardzumyan (1979) and Hrachya Talish Hovhannisyan (1957) were killed, and one soldier was wounded.

Azerbaijan launched the attack after Azerbaijan’s State Border Service accused Armenian troops stationed near Nerkin Hand of firing on Azerbaijani soldiers near Kollugishlaq village in the Zangilan province on February 12. One Azerbaijani soldier was reportedly injured.

The Armenian Defense Ministry did not deny that the incident took place. It promptly released a statement announcing that the information regarding the “alleged opening of fire by Armenian border guards” is “under investigation.” The Defense Ministry suggested that superior command had not provided written orders permitting the soldier to open fire. “If this is confirmed, those responsible for violating the orders will be held accountable,” the MoD said.

The following day, Azerbaijani authorities announced a “revenge operation” on February 13 in response to the “provocation committed by the Armenian Armed Forces.” It claimed that the Armenian combat post near Nerkin Hand was “completely destroyed, and the combat positions were silenced.” Azerbaijani armed forces opened fire on Nerkin Hand from 5:30-9:30 a.m., according to the Armenian MoD.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry condemned the attack, accusing Azerbaijan of “looking for pretexts for escalation on the border.” In a statement, it said that the Azerbaijani side “carried out aggressive actions” in retaliation for the previous day’s incident, in spite of the investigation launched by the Armenian MoD.

On February 12, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry also accused the Armenian armed forces of firing at Azerbaijani positions along the northeastern part of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The Armenian Defense Ministry denied the accusation.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called the incident part of “Azerbaijan’s policy aimed at disrupting the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan by all possible means.” He accused Azerbaijan of engaging in a series of provocations in order to deepen enmity and military escalations in the region.

“But despite all these facts, our government is devoted to the peace process, because our belief is that the peace process has no alternative,” PM Pashinyan said in a meeting with a United Kingdom parliamentary delegation. “But unfortunately, it is not possible to do this without the political will of the other side.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov reacted to what he called “alarming news,” calling on both sides to show “restraint to avoid in every possible way any actions that the other side may consider provocative.”

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell discussed the incident during a meeting in Brussels with Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan on February 13. While he called the Armenian shooting of the Azerbaijani soldier “deplorable,” he said that Azerbaijan’s response “seems to be disproportionate, ignoring the announcement by the Armenian Minister of Defense that this incident will be fully investigated.”

Since the 2020 Artsakh War, Armenia has taken steps to move away from its traditional security partner Russia, who it has accused of failing to uphold mutual defense agreements in response to Azerbaijani aggression. Armenian authorities have indicated their interest in diversifying their security ties, especially with the West.

On February 13, Borrell announced an “ambitious new EU-Armenian Partnership Agenda” following his meeting with Mirzoyan. The enhanced partnership includes collaboration on trade, energy, connectivity, security and defense. It also includes discussions to start visa liberalization between Armenia and the EU. During the meeting, the EU announced €5.5 million in aid for Artsakh refugees in Armenia, in addition to the €12.2 million already provided in September following the forced mass displacement.

Borrell also reaffirmed the EU’s support for the “urgent need for the distancing of forces” along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

While Armenia has been attempting to strengthen ties with the West, Azerbaijan’s relations with the West have deteriorated in recent months. Azerbaijani authorities have accused the West of demonstrating pro-Armenia bias, in response to criticism from Western actors of Azerbaijan’s human rights and ceasefire violations.

In particular, in recent days Azerbaijan has voiced its criticisms of the EU Mission in Armenia (EUMA). The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry condemned what it called Borrell’s “groundless allegations,” accusing Borrell of “taking a unilateral pro-Armenian stance.” It called his proposal for the distancing of forces “regretful”.

It also claimed that the EU border mission, which it called “mercenaries deployed by Armenia in border regions under the ‘patronage of the European Union Mission,’” “jeopardizes the lives of Azerbaijani servicemen and civilians.”

The EU deployed a border monitoring mission to the region following the two-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in September 2022. In December 2023, the EU increased the number of unarmed civilian observers from 138 to 209.

On February 12, one day before Azerbaijan’s border attack, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry summoned the EU Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Peter Michalko, to express its discontent with the EUMA. In a statement, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said that the mission is “being widely exploited as an anti-Azerbaijani propaganda tool.”

“Whom do they mean by ‘mercenaries’? This is a crazy statement even for Azerbaijani propaganda,” Yerevan-based foreign policy expert Sossi Tatikyan tweeted in response to the statement from the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry. “Azerbaijan is accusing Armenia & EU for the existence of Armenian military protecting Armenian borders and villages within sovereign Armenia partially occupied by Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev lambasted EU mediation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict during his presidential inauguration speech on February 14. “We do not need a mediator in this matter,” Aliyev said. “I think that the process of normalization of Azerbaijan-Armenia relations should be dropped from the international agenda. Because anyone seems to want to deal with this issue. Mind your own business!”

Aliyev went on to issue new threats against Armenia, stating that if Armenia continues to make “groundless claims” against Azerbaijan, a peace treaty will “not be signed, but nothing will change for Azerbaijan.”

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